01 August 2005

Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days

I've read three superb novels in the past three months:

- The Master by Colm Toibin
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
- Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

The third I read this weekend because I found it on the New Books shelf at the Southern Pines Public Library and I couldn't resist. Funny how I'm not willing to buy a novel on a whim. Could it be because the blurbs are fake, the reviewers compromised by ego and paychecks, the publishers depraved? With novels I want to know they're great before I commit to putting the book on my shelf, and if they're great, I'll buy them and read them again for all the things I loved and all the things I missed. For example, one reviewer of says that the simulo called Marcus in the third story of Specimen Days has an Emily Dickinson poetry chip. I missed that and will be heading back to find it.

I've read all of Cunningham's novels. I even read The Hours twice because I hated it so much the first time, then listened to friends rave, and once I set Woolf aside and promised her she was not being diminished by the ostensible homage, I was able to appreciate the work. My favorite remains Home at the End of the World and this morning, Specimen Days is running second.

Since so many reviewers spoke slightingly of Specimen Days, I went back to learn what they didn't like. One said the third section "strains credibility." Thank heavens. If I wanted realism, I'd watch television. A few seemed bothered by their ability to figure out what Cunningham was doing, i.e., a novel composed of three separate stories linked in what one reviewer called "mysterious and significant" ways. One reviewer claimed that Cunningham was uncomfortable with Whitman. Another wished the Whitman quotes had been omitted. Reviewers paid by the word reduced the stories to plot points so that the cocktail-party goer wouldn't have to read the book at all to form an opinion, which is only one reason I barely skim reviews until after I've read the book.

I'm glad I read Specimen Days because I can't stop thinking about it. Cunningham is a prose stylist of such skill. He creates characters I fall in love with, here Lucas and Cat and the nameless boy and Simon and Catareen. He creates characters I can pity and despise and also long for like Cat's whitebread boyfriend. He creates expectations and turns them upside down: why Catareen is so green. Cunningham's story lines are rich, alive, compelling. I fall completely into his imaginary world, and when I reread, I try to figure out how he made it happen so smoothly. He can quote Whitman (or Dickinson or Woolf) to me any time he wants. I was fascinated by Cunningham's decisions of which Whitman to use where, which Whitman to quote over and over.

More than anything though, Cunningham has written here about apocalypse, about the collapse of American society, and by implication, the collapse of human society, the opposite of what Whitman wanted to believe possible. He writes movingly of the small lives of people in the midst of it, people who cannot affect anything beyond themselves but who can try to live short moments of their own lives with sincerity.

For you craft freaks, study Cunningham's narration of the first story. He sets himself in a close third person of a twelve-year-old boy who is not "normal." Every narrative paragraph is a minor triumph. Here's one that takes place while Lucas is walking Catherine home after Simon's wake:

She [Catherine] glanced at a place just above Lucas's head and settled herself, a small shifting within her dark dress. It seemed for a moment as if her dress, with its high collar, its whisper of hidden silk, had a separate life. It seemed as if Catherine, having briefly considered rising up out of her dress, had decided instead to remain, to give herself back to her clothes.

The first sentence is pure narrator. The second begins to slip into Lucas's perception of Catherine. The third is pure Lucas.

Okay, I found Marcus speaking Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me." The simulos can't help quoting their poets because of their poetry chips. We all need poetry chips. Could I be James Merrill today?

1 comment:

  1. Glad to read a favorable review of this for once! I haven't read it yet, but generally like Cunningham's work a great deal. BTW, have you read his lovely Provincetown travelogue, Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown? He captures so much of what I love about that town.